Archive for June 2008

A Culture of Miscreants

June 27, 2008

“If a ruler listens to falsehood, all his officials will be wicked.” (Prov 29.12)

Everything we do affects somebody else, often in ways we couldn’t imagine or wouldn’t intend. In this remarkable little proverb, Solomon paints a picture of unintended consequences. At center stage we see a “ruler,” a person with influence over other people. Naturally we will think of kings and presidents and potentates in palaces; but remember that almost everybody is a “ruler” sometimes, with some people–from managers to moms and dads–so as you look at this picture, see yourself.

The ruler in Solomon’s scenario “listens to falsehood.” Maybe it takes the form of flattery. Or slander. Or empty promises. Or rosy predictions. Or padded reports. Or back-scratching recommendations. Or tattle-tale criticism. The “falsehood” can take as many forms as the genius of Satan can derive. And because the “father of lies” (Jn 8.44) never sleeps, anyone who deals with people (and that’s all of us) will have to deal with “falsehood.” The question is whether he or she (or I) will “listen to falsehood.” Give it credence. Take it to heart.

If he does (if I do), this is what will happen: “all his officials will be wicked.” If a leader listens to falsehood, he will create a culture of miscreants. The inmates, as we say, will run the asylum. Think about it. If a supervisor listens to flattery, for example, he will soon be surrounded by sycophants, people who tell him not what he needs to hear, but what they think he wants to hear, all trying to outdo each other in servile, self-seeking faint praise. Likewise, a parent listens to falsehood by giving in to a toddler’s tantrums (remember, children can lie before they can talk!). When that happens, the little one learns that the world revolves around his ego, and that if he makes enough noise he can get whatever he wants. You can trace these consequences all through human life, from the boardroom to the basement.

This principle even applies to politics. Jeremiah, for example, writes about corruption in high places–prophets who “prophesy falsely” and priests who “rule at their direction”–and then he adds, “My people love it so” (Jer 5.31). Corrupt rulers (who listen to falsehood) create a corrupt culture (the people love it that way). The average Israelite, of course, had little to do with those rulers; but we have a lot to do with ours. Which makes this little proverb all the more sobering–for it tells us that we will become as a people the kind of people we elect. That alone should stir us to pray and work for righteousness this election year. You are loved.

Your Pastor,

Richard Wells

The Mouse in the House

June 21, 2008

Drive out the scoffer, and strife will go out,

and quarreling and abuse will cease. (Prov 22.10)

On the shelves in my study, you can find literally dozens of books on the broad subject of “church.” Pick a feature, there’s a book. And there are many more out there waiting to be read. But over the years, I have observed a curious omission in all those books–they almost never deal with “discipline.” One book has a whole chapter, for example, on “Resolving Congregational Conflicts,” but says not a word about the elephant in the room–I mean the “scoffer” of Proverbs 22.10. The author defines “conflict,” identifies “types” of conflict, and suggests techniques for conflict management such as “circular seating” and “Rogerian repetition.” All well and good, but what about the “scoffer?”

Maybe almost all the church books ignore the “scoffer” because almost all are written by seminary professors, not pastors (and that’s not a knock on seminary professors–I was one). But in the rough-and-tumble of everyday living, every pastor knows (indeed we all know) exactly what Solomon meant about the “scoffer” in the assembly. In any church or any organization–a class, a deacon body, elder board, ministry team, even a family–one person with an attitude can subvert everything good and godly. The classic case is Diotrephes (3 John), who loved to “put himself first,” talked “wicked nonsense” against the Apostle John, and kept the church from doing Kingdom work. John pledges to “bring up what he is doing,” because the scoffer must either (a) repent or (b) he must go. Hear Solomon well: You can’t “manage” a scoffer, you must drive him out.

These hard words make better sense when we understand the character of the scoffer. The Hebrew word (lēts) originally meant “interpreter.” The scoffer, we might say, “interprets” everything, but always in a negative light. Maybe he jokes about everything (so nothing is ever serious). Or he criticizes everything (so nothing is ever good). Or he mocks everyone (so no one is ever respected). However he does it (scoffing takes many forms), he casts everything in black light.

You don’t need a book on conflict management to predict the results. Solomon mentions “strife” and “quarreling,” but also “abuse.” That sounds a little odd, doesn’t it? Here again, the Hebrew word (qālôn) helps us–it means “disgrace,” “dishonor,” “shame.” (The King James Version has “reproach.”) Solomon is saying that the scoffer not only disturbs the assembly with quarreling and strife, he dishonors it with shame and reproach. He gives it grief within and a bad name without. A dead mouse stinks up a whole house.

We all know people like that; but most of us would say that we aren’t like that ourselves. And rightly so. Most of us aren’t–most of the time. But shouldn’t this proverb teach us how important unity is? And how fragile? Be “diligent“–let the force of the word sink in–be “diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4.3, NASV). Get the dead mouse out of the house. You are loved.

Your Pastor,

Richard Wells

The Hollywood Heart

June 13, 2008

All the days of the afflicted are evil,
but the cheerful of heart has a continual feast.
Better is a little with the fear of the Lord
than great treasure and trouble with it.
Better is a dinner of herbs where love is
than a fattened ox and hatred with it. (Prov 15.15-17)

At a checkout line the other day, my eyes happened on one of those blaring headlines that clamor for attention with the latest from Hollywood.  Another celebrity couple, it seems, had called it quits, and for a price, the tabloid would tell you “why.”

But we already know “why,” don’t we?  All the gold in California, “all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave” (Thomas Gray), cannot put joy in a human heart.  That explains the Hollywood heart.  It is “afflicted”–lavish on the outside, sterile on the inside–and all its days fill up the tabloids.  Solomon describes it perfectly: “great treasure and trouble with it.”  But, of course, Solomon had everyday people in mind, not just the lifestyles of the rich and famous.  He means people like you and me, who have everything we need (and then some), but somehow seem to be missing something.

Together these three proverbs present a very different vision for life.  The vision stands on the principle that happiness begins and ends in the heart-“the cheerful of heart has a continual feast” (v. 16).  We find happiness in homes, not in houses.  In meaning, not in money.  Peace, not portfolio.  Satisfaction rather than silver.  Goodness rather than gold.  In love, not liquid assets.  We have joy not in material things, but in matters of the heart.

We all know that principle of a cheerful heart–sort of.  But not well enough, so Solomon explains with two illustrations.  The first one says that a cheerful heart is a heart for God.  Far better to have only a little in this world with “the fear of the Lord,” than to have “great treasure and trouble with it” (v. 17).  Solomon doesn’t criticize wealth, nor does he say that wealthy people always have trouble.  No-he only means that holiness, a heart for God, is the truest treasure, the noblest wealth.  Only God can put joy in our hearts, and when He does, “the cheerful of heart has a continual feast.” Remember Paul and Silas in prison, praying and singing hymns at the midnight hour (Act 16.25)?  A heart for God gives songs in the night.

The second illustration (v. 18) says that a cheerful heart is a heart for people.  Far better a simple meal with love, than a banquet with strife.  Again, Solomon doesn’t mean that every big event is tense with trouble (but you’ve attended some that were, I’ll bet!).  No–he only means that a lavish hall, celebrity guests, and sumptuous cuisine have nothing to do with joy in the heart.  Just ask the Brown-eyed Baby–“would you rather feast at the Waldorf, or have the kids and grandkids home for hotdogs?”

Holiness plus love equals “a cheerful heart.”  That’s a gift of God, and a vision for life worth living.  And that’s a message for fathers this Father’s Day.  No matter what happens in Hollywood.  Or anywhere else.  You are loved.

Your Pastor,

Richard Wells

Our Answer to Aristotle

June 6, 2008

I have counsel and sound wisdom;
I have insight; I have strength.
By me kings reign,
and rulers decree what is just;
by me princes rule,
and nobles, all who govern justly. (Prov 8.14-16)

In these verses, “Wisdom” speaks, and she speaks specifically about government. Note the five subjects (vv. 15, 16): “kings,” “rulers,” “princes,” “nobles,” “all who govern.”

As the election-year rhetoric heats up, we might wish it weren’t so (!), but government is necessary. It was said of the Reformers in Geneva (and of American patriots 200 years later) that they established “a government without a king.” Yes, but it was still a system of rule through rulers. Indeed, John Calvin himself (in Geneva) considered it “perfect barbarism to think of exterminating [government]” (Institutes, 2.652). “Government” of any sort will always fall short of the ideal, but the only alternative is anarchy.

Aristotle said long ago that “politics” must exist because every polis (Greek for “city”) must determine (a) the way of life best for it, and (b) how best to promote that way of life. Much earlier still, Solomon had an answer for Aristotle. The “best way of life?” Wisdom says, “By me . . . rulers decree what is just.” And again, by wisdom, those who govern, govern “justly.” Here in a word is the whole teaching of the Bible about civil government. It exists, under God, to do “justice.” Nothing less.

And nothing more. Government exists to do “justice,” not to conduct social experiments or try to create heaven on earth. The recent California Supreme Court decision striking down the state’s marriage law shows us how easily this principle can get out of whack. By a 4-3 vote, the “justices” set aside the will of the people to define “marriage” exclusively as the union of a man and a woman. One of the dissenting justices called it “legal jujitsu.” A “bare majority,” he said, has not only violated “our society’s most basic shared premise-the People’s general right . . . to decide fundamental issues of public policy for themselves,” but has claimed a right it “simply does not have . . . to erase, then recast, the age-old definition of marriage, as virtually all societies have understood it, in order to satisfy its own contemporary notions of equality and justice” (p. 134).

How best to promote the best way of life? In a word, “Wisdom”-“by me [wisdom] . . . rulers decree what is just.” In other words, the only guarantee of real justice in the world is biblical wisdom in the halls of power.

Yeah, like that’s gonna’ happen! True enough, but as God’s people, we must never lose sight of the principle, even if the whole world laughs it out of court. We must, God helping us, do all in our power to promote biblical wisdom in the public square. For the good of all persons (that’s justice), and for the glory of God. That’s our answer to Aristotle. You are loved.

Your Pastor,

Richard Wells